Published: October 18, 2016
Format: E-book from netgalley
A strange, unique, intellectual novel. This, my first Jonathan Lethem novel, was decidedly interesting yet eclectic. It was full of twists & turns as well as obscure references to historical, literary and film characters. I felt that this book was in a genre the opposite of “chick-lit.” It seemed geared toward men, focused on men, devoid of emotion. The women in this novel were there ministering to the needs of the men. It is about games, identity, masks, power, sex. Relationships lacked any depth within this strange book which is full of smoke and mirrors, self identity crises, puppetry, and a feeling of unreality.
This is a novel about a handsome backgammon hustler, Bruno, who helps empty the pockets of the wealthy with the assistance of his handler, Falk, who arranges these meetings. One night in Singapore, he encounters a high school acquaintance who takes it upon himself to learn backgammon and challenge Bruno to a match. This is about the same time that Bruno notices the “blot” in his vision. Of course, “blot” is also a backgammon term meaning, “a man exposed by being placed alone on a point and therefore able to be taken by the other player” making this a double entendre. This is the beginning of Bruno’s losing streak and ultimate diagnosis of a facial tumor which is causing the blot in his vision. There is a surgeon in San Francisco, Noah Behringer, who will operate and Stolarsky agrees to pay all costs. Thus, Bruno, penniless and at the mercy of others, is brought to Berkley, his hometown, a place he vowed he would never return.
Once the surgery is completed, Bruno feels naked without the blot and requests a mask. This is reminiscent of his last backgammon game during which a young woman serving food came in wearing a mask and was naked from the waist down. The gambler felt that he could communicate telepathically earlier in his life and the blot had helped to protect him from this unwanted gift. Now that the blot is gone, he feels he is exposed again (that his telepathy has returned) and wants the blot back. He feels that he was present during the surgery and remembers all that happened. In fact, that is the only chapter which is told not from the gambler’s perspective but from that of the surgeon, almost as if he was inside the surgeon’s head at the time of surgery watching it happen, a very clever twist of story-telling.
The gambler becomes a pawn of Stolarsky’s. Having no money of his own, he is living in an apartment within a building Sturgeon owns. He must wear clothing that he purchases at the store Stolarsky owns, so ends up dressed in “Abide” clothing. He is told to work at Kropotke’s burgers where he is made to wear a burlap mask with a noose around his neck. Bruno, as a character, seems like a pawn in a game other people are controlling, either Falk (his handler) or Stolarsky, at this particular interval in his life.
Madchen is a beautiful blond he met on a ferry when he was headed to Berlin. She was also the masked woman naked from the waist down who served sandwiches during his backgammon match in Berlin. She is the only person who tries to contact him during his time in Berkley, as he seems to have no close friends or family. When she is flown out by Stolarsky, she also becomes another piece in a game that Stolarsky seems to be playing, against Bruno and the anarchists with whom Bruno has taken up.
This novel is full of double entendres, irony, wit, intellectualism. It is enticing, thought-provoking and strange. For those who enjoy this type of novel, it will be dearly loved. It is definitely not main-stream. It is off the beaten path, odd, but brilliantly written.
- What does the blot represent to Bruno?
- How is Bruno’s childhood important to the novel and what he has become?
- Explain Bruno’s telepathic powers. Do these help him or hinder him in life, or make no difference?
- What effect does Bruno’s telepathy have on the surgeon who operated?
- What role does Madchen play in the novel?
- Explain why Alexander Bruno does not feel that he exists anymore at the end?
- Why is Tira Harpaz important? What does she represent?